clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Sci-Fi Is Having a Renaissance on Television

If 2023 marked the moment when Peak TV finally plateaued, it has also ushered in a new golden age of science fiction

Netflix/Apple TV/Amazon/Ringer illustration

From the early days of The Twilight Zone and Star Trek to contemporary hits like The X-Files, Battlestar Galactica, and Lost, television has long been home to compelling science fiction. But the quality of the genre’s offerings hasn’t always been matched with an uptick in quantity. It wasn’t until 1992 that the Sci-Fi Channel (since rebranded as Syfy) debuted, and its programming tends to skew more Sharknado than The Expanse. In fact, The Expanse was shaping up to be one of Syfy’s greatest original series before it was canceled after three seasons: a microcosm of how traditional cable rarely lends itself to big-budget space operas and other sci-fi projects of that scale.

Of course, Amazon’s Prime Video swooped in and revived The Expanse, allowing the show to end on its own terms after six seasons. (If you’re a sci-fi fanatic and still haven’t watched The Expanse, what are you waiting for?) In hindsight, Prime Video was the perfect home for a series like The Expanse: a streamer that has heavily invested in small-screen adaptations of The Wheel of Time, The Lord of the Rings, and The Peripheral. But Prime Video is hardly an outlier in the streaming landscape. As consumers continue to bypass cable, streamers aren’t just responsible for producing more scripted television than ever before: They’ve helped kick-start a science-fiction boom.

In the era of Peak TV, audiences have been treated to several sci-fi shows that managed to penetrate the zeitgeist. Westworld might’ve fallen on hard times, but it once had the most-watched first season of any HBO series; heading into its fifth and final season, Stranger Things remains the crown jewel of Netflix’s original programming. But for every hit like Stranger Things, there have also been high-profile failures in the genre: Altered Carbon, which was once rumored to be Netflix’s most expensive series, was canceled after two seasons; Brave New World was one of the flagship shows of Peacock’s launch, and it lasted only one season. That sentiment extends to a galaxy far, far away: With the notable exception of Andor and the early seasons of The Mandalorian, Star Wars has delivered diminishing returns on the small screen. (The less said about The Book of Boba Fett, the better.)

All told, science fiction had yet to find the Goldilocks zone on television, striking the right balance between quality and quantity. But if 2023 marked the moment when Peak TV finally plateaued, it has also ushered in a new golden age of sci-fi. It’s not just that there’s more worthwhile sci-fi on television than ever before: The shows that have cut through the noise are doing it in different ways. The best sci-fi series this year covered all the bases: alt-history dramas, dystopian thrillers, AI-infused dramedies, galaxy-spanning space operas, time-traveling character studies. The wider world of television may be in a state of disarray since the streaming bubble burst, but sci-fi fans can keep riding the wave of the genre’s recent successes.

Leading the charge is Apple TV+, the streaming arm of the world’s first trillion-dollar company. Like Amazon, Apple has the resources to funnel considerable money into streaming without a pressing need for profitability because it doesn’t make up the bulk of its business. But where these companies differ is how their streaming ambitions have been embraced by audiences. By and large, Prime Video’s big swings have failed to match their hefty price tags; conversely, Apple TV+ has stealthily emerged as one of the most reliable destinations for prestige television outside of HBO. More importantly, Apple TV+ has firmly established itself as the go-to streamer for big-budget sci-fi.

In 2023, Apple TV+ released new seasons of For All Mankind, an alt-history drama in which the Soviet Union landed the first man on the moon, and Foundation, an ambitious adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s seminal book series. What unites these shows is how they’re driven by big-picture ideas: Each season of For All Mankind jumps ahead a decade to show humanity’s progress in the Space Race; Foundation is intended to span a millennium. At the same time, For All Mankind and Foundation wouldn’t be nearly as gripping without individuals making profound personal sacrifices for the greater good, be it jumping forward centuries in a hibernation pod or leaving Earth behind to colonize Mars. That For All Mankind and Foundation manage to excel as feats of immersive world-building without coming at the expense of the interiority of its characters’ lives has become something of a calling card for Apple’s sci-fi projects.

Elsewhere, this year saw Apple TV+ debut Silo, a mystery-box thriller set in a dystopian future in which mankind lives underground, and Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, a small-screen extension of the Godzilla-led MonsterVerse. Once again, the blockbuster scale of these shows is what draws you in, but it’s the emotional investment in the fates of the characters—something that’s been a persistent issue for the MonsterVerse on the big screen—that keeps viewers around for the long haul. If Syfy is a haven for sci-fi fans on basic cable, Apple TV+ has become more than a viable streaming alternative: The platform is buoyed by diverse projects within the genre that all share impressive production values. As a result, Apple hasn’t just found a niche in the Streaming Wars: The company has emphatically cornered the market on imaginative, thought-provoking sci-fi. (Look out for Constellation, a psychological thriller led by Noomi Rapace and Jonathan Banks, in February 2024.)

The current sci-fi boom might be most pronounced on Apple, but other streamers got in on the act this year. Among the best of the rest was the Max animated series Scavengers Reign, which followed the scattered survivors of a cargo ship marooned on the planet Vesta Minor. With an animation style best described as “Studio Ghibli by way of body horror,” Scavengers Reign was a refreshingly unique addition to the genre, which puts the series in stark contrast with the broader direction of Warner Bros. Discovery: a company so anti-art under CEO David Zaslav that it’s tried killing off well-received projects for a tax write-off. (When even Batman titles are being shipped off to competitors, you know things are dire.) It’s little wonder that Scavengers Reign may hold the title for the most underrated show of 2023: Max barely bothered to promote it, leaving its future in jeopardy. Hopefully, more Max users discover the transportive wonders of Scavengers Reign before, god forbid, the series goes the way of Westworld.

Other shows tapped into modern anxieties around the emergence of artificial intelligence with a touch of levity: Peacock’s wonderfully wacky limited series Mrs. Davis pitted an advanced algorithm with a profound influence on the world against a literal nun; the funniest episode of Black Mirror’s sixth season imagined a future in which Netflix turned our lives into content. (Mrs. Davis cocreator Damon Lindelof and Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker also tinkered with real AI in relation to their shows; both were left unimpressed.) Meanwhile, Disney continued rolling out new entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars, which remained a mixed bag. Loki’s second season wasn’t as sharp as its debut, but it’s still one of the rare success stories of the MCU post-Endgame; Ahsoka wasn’t the strongest endorsement for Dave Filoni’s new role as Lucasfilm’s chief creative officer. (At least we have another season of Andor on the way—at this rate, Tony Gilroy is the franchise’s only hope.)

I don’t mean to pile on Disney for delivering a comparatively underwhelming slate of sci-fi this year. For all its triumphs in the genre, Apple TV+ isn’t immune to duds like Hello Tomorrow! and Invasion. But on the whole, science fiction continues to head in a promising direction. The very best of these shows don’t just have the look and feel of a tentpole, but the level of emotional depth that only a serialized project can offer. When it comes to the sheer output of quality series, it feels like there’s never been a better time to be a sci-fi fan—and the best may be yet to come. In March 2024, Netflix is set to release 3 Body Problem, the highly anticipated adaptation of Liu Cixin’s acclaimed Three-Body trilogy, led by Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.

As the first series from Benioff and Weiss since Thrones, 3 Body Problem comes with plenty of fanfare—and, for anyone still reeling from Thrones’ lackluster ending, perhaps a bit of trepidation. In an earlier era of television, sci-fi obsessives would’ve had to pin all their hopes on a big swing like 3 Body Problem living up to the hype. But that’s what makes the current state of science fiction on television so thrilling: There are so many rich, immersive universes worth exploring.